A cluster of red and white wooden buildings nest in a meadow at the edge of a lake that is really the long finger of a Norwegian fjord. The structures look tiny next to the mountains looming behind them, mountains thickly covered with the greenest trees I have ever seen–birch, spruce, aspen, pine. The beauty of the landscape opens like moist wings inside my chest. But still I ask myself: How do people survive in such isolation? What kind of power do these mountains impose on those who live in their shadows?
Prior to this trip, I had always regarded Norway with great ambivalence — this despite (or because of) the fact that I’m half Norwegian. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1870, settling in the Red River Valley of North Dakota where they ran a modest farm. My mother grew up Norwegian and spoke the language all her life — though not with her children. Norwegian was a secret tongue which she reserved for talking to her sisters about things she didn’t want us kids to hear.
Childlike at times, but more often distant, unsupportive, sometimes hardly there, my mother was what I associated with being Norwegian. My other Norwegian relatives also struck me, with some exceptions, as a quiet and overly sober bunch — except for Aunt Karina who wore a lot of rouge and bright red lipstick and blouses that looked like they were made in the 1940s. Aunt Karina who played “Red River Valley” on a ukulele and sang “From this valley they say you are going” in a husky voice.
I have often wondered if my mother’s emotional distance was an inheritance of her culture, and after reading the Norwegian Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing Horses,” I decided it was. As the novel opens, the protagonist, Trond Sander, a widower in his sixties, has moved to a cabin in the woods near a lake. He lives there alone, glad to be in a place where there is “only silence.” But bit by bit he recalls his past and especially his relation to a father he adored but who was often absent, a father who finally abandoned the family altogether, taking part of his son’s life with him.
Amidst the silence of the forest, where you can hear the sound of ants crawling, Trond comes to terms with pain and loss, concluding that we “decide for ourselves when it will hurt.” “Out Stealing Horses” is one of the reasons I decided to give Norway a try. I’d found in Petterson’s reflections upon Norwegian character a complexity and a depth of feeling that drew me in. It was because of a novel, read three years after my mother’s death, that I decided to risk an encounter with my Norwegian past. Maybe, I thought, I could find a Norway of my own.
On my first day in Norway I feel overwhelmed by the natural world. Bergen is a city of 250,000, but the seven towering mountains to which it clings weigh on me, making the city feel like a village.
Did mountains like those contribute to “the law of Jante,” a fictional but quasi-mythical injunction to Norwegians to be humble, not to make too much of themselves?
Perhaps living at the foot of sky-jutting mountains in acres of meadow on a lake-like fjord explains a certain fondness in Norway for self-reliance, a self-reliance that the country expects of its visitors as well. How else do you explain the paucity of signs directing you to historic sites, the terseness of information in museums, the failure clearly to indicate just how you get from train to bus to boat and then back to the train on Norway’s popular Nutshell Tour, a journey that whizzes you, without a guide, through verdant forests and meadows, past the breathless rush of waterfalls to the leaden blue of the fjords against snow topped mountains and then back again?
Norway’s lack of signage reminds me of my self-reliant mother refusing to help me with those “special (time- wasting) projects” they assigned, and still assign, to kids in school. “I’ve always been a loner,” she said more than once to me. And now I’ve come to the homeland of self-reliant loners. Not that Norwegians are unfriendly. If you ask them for directions, they are kind and glad to help. But as a rule, I feel the culture expects more of its visitors, more of me.
On my second day, I visit Bergen’s Art Museum and am struck by the work of Nikolai Astrup, an early twentieth century Norwegian painter, who captures the overpowering presence of the landscape and, at the same time, shows how people living in it create their own comforting order in the form of gardens, fences, familial relationships, and interiors. In “Night Garden,” two small dark figures plant seeds in their carefully laid out plot against a backdrop of snowy peaks, dark meadows, and a huge yellow moon.
In “June Evening” mountains dwarf a house and shed, but off to the right two girls pick buttercups in a meadow. My favorite painting, however, is one of a bedroom in Astrup’s boyhood home. A canopied bed with a pillowy cherry-colored comforter takes up most of the middle space. In the background, a young girl stands in light at the top of a stair while off to the side the vast Norwegian landscape is reduced to a green and white dabbling only glimpsed through white curtains. As I contemplate that picture, I long to have had a bed like that, long to have possessed its comforts in my childhood.
On the third afternoon, as I walk down Bergen’s cobbled streets, I begin to cry. I had cried when my mother died because at that moment I had known for certain that I would never have a real mother. I cry on the cobblestones in Bergen because it occurs to me that I don’t, and will never, have a connection to Norway that is an outgrowth of familial love. I will never be connected by family affection to the only country I can count as my motherland.
On our fourth day in Bergen, we visit the cultural wing of the Bergen museum. I’m looking for information on Vikings, bemused at the thought of being related to a people famed for swift boats and plunder, although I know from reading a book on Vikings that this wasn’t the whole story. Vikings farmed and fished, and worked hard. They were fond of entertaining and found ingenious ways not to freeze to death in Norwegian winters.
In a dark and remote section of the museum I find life-sized models of people labeled ‘Sami.” They are wearing elaborately embroidered garb in red, yellow, and blue. Sami, I read, are the aboriginal inhabitants of Northern Norway, famously known for nature worship and a nomadic life involving tents, and herding reindeer. Back at our rental apartment, I Google “Sami” on my laptop and the name “Roland Bonaparte” pops up. He was a nineteenth-century anthropologist who photographed and measured Sami as part of an effort to study and classify them as a people. As his black and white photographs appear on my screen, the spitting image of my nephew in his youth looks back at me. I scroll through the photographs and find, to my astonishment, multiple versions of what I think of as a distinctive family nose — a long nose with a pronounced ski jump at the end. It is my nose, and that of my mother, my grandmother, my nephew, and my own daughter.
Since Sami live in Northern Norway and my own ancestors come from Valdres in the South, I’m doubtful about there being a connection until I learn that an archeological dig has uncovered evidence of a Sami settlement in Valdres in the Middle Ages. So it is possible that my ancestors had Sami blood. Did I really come from a line of nature-loving pagans who valued community, worshipped rocks and trees, went in for drumming, relied on shamans to make connection between the world of spirits and their own, and harbored a taste for wearing bright primary colors against the white snow? I decide to think so!
My strictly religious mother would have been rejected this identification. Christian missionaries had tried, with no little success, to convert the Sami in the 1600s and 1700s but pagan elements have persisted in their worship. Even liberal Norway tried to Norwegianize the Sami after World War II, until the Sami protested in the 1960s and 1970s and won the right to be represented in the Norwegian parliament and to teach their language again in schools. Sami also revived the tradition of yoiking, a kind of singing chant that, in its traditional form, sounds Native American to me. Yoiking is used to evoke whatever the singer wants and, depending on the context, may function as a form of self-reflection, of sharing memories, of coming to terms with loss and pain, or of finding community and a sense of belonging.
I think I’ve found a community, a sense of belonging, a Norwegian past — though my connection to them may only exist in the Norwegian woods of my imagination.